ScienceScience Now

Dorothy Hodgkin: The making of a brainiac

ChemistryWorld War I (1914-1918)ArthritisNobel Prize Awards

Dorothy Hodgkin made incredible contributions to science. But while checking out the achievements of this Google Doodle-celebrated chemist, pause to appreciate some of the factors that shaped her intellect -- intriguing parents and a childhood that smacks of Indiana Jones.

Really, did she have any choice but to become a Nobel Prize winner?

Dorothy was born in Cairo to English parents passionate about archaeology. John Crowfoot, classical scholar and excavator, was director of education and antiquities in the Sudan. Her mother, Grace Mary Crowfoot, was an expert on ancient textiles and a talented botanist.

The Crowfoots encouraged their children to be intellectual sponges, to experiment, study and research. Although Dorothy's formal education was in England, a portion of her growing-up years was spent in the Middle East and North Africa.

When she was young, she was interested in the pebbles in the stream running alongside the family home in Khartoum, Sudan. She didn't just plunk the rocks in the water, or stack them up and knock them down.  She analyzed them with a portable mineral analysis kit. 

She was "captured for life" by a school-age experiment in which she mixed alum and copper sulfate. When the solution evaporated, there lay glinting crystals.  Dorothy was one of two girls allowed to join the boys at school in chemistry class, which interestingly enough was taught by a woman, according to NobelPrize.org.

There are hints of loneliness in her early years. World War I separated her from her parents, who remained in Egypt while she was cared for by friends and family.  Her mother returned at one point to direct her children's education, a time that Dorothy reportedly said was one of the happiest of her childhood. 

When he retired, John Crowfoot focused on archaeology and digs at sites including Mt. Ophel, Jerash and Samaria. Before she went to college, Dorothy joined her parents in Jordan for a Jerash excavation that caused her to briefly consider flinging aside chemistry for archaeology.

Fortunately, she stuck with chemistry.

Hodgkin, using the process of X-ray crystallography, determined in 3D detail the structure of complex molecules -- cholesterol, vitamins D and B-12, penicillin and insulin.  She won multiple awards, including the Nobel in chemistry in 1964. 

Hodgkin was diagnosed at only 24 with rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually crippled her hands and feet. But the intellectual light of her childhood remained bright throughout her life. An obituary after her death in 1994 at age 84 described her this way:

"She pursued her crystallographic studies, not for the sake of honours, but because this was what she liked to do. There was magic about her person. She had no enemies, not even among those whose scientific theories she demolished or whose political views she opposed. Just as her X-ray cameras bared the intrinsic beauty beneath the rough surface of things, so the warmth and gentleness of her approach to people uncovered in everyone, even the most hardened scientific crook, some hidden kernel of goodness. "

Follow me at @AmyTheHub

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading